First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 7:16 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr William Powell Mr William Powell , Corby 7:16 pm, 6th May 1992

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) did the House a great service in raising certain matters and I hope that serious consideration will be given to the problems faced by the Maxwell pensioners and to the behaviour, more and more commonly identified, of some of our banks.

I, too, warmly congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to the throne on which you now sit. We all look forward to sitting under your chairmanship in debates throughout this Parliament.

I am sorry that I was not called when the Chairman of Ways and Means, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris), was in the Chair because I should like to have been the first Northamptonshire Member to have congratulated him on his elevation, which will be widely welcomed in Northamptonshire. We are proud of the honour that has been conferred on him, and I know that he will be every bit as distinguished as previous holders of that office.

I warmly welcome the Queen's Speech and will be able enthusiastically to support it. If my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is identified with any themes of public policy, they must be the elimination of inflation and the improvement in the standard and quality of our public services. The Queen's Speech underlines yet again his commitment and that of the Government to ensuring that we do not reignite inflation and that we take determined steps to improve the quality and standards of our public services.

Having placed my remarks in that framework, may I make some general points? The first must be directed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. In the past two Parliaments in which I have sat it has been comparatively easy for the Treasury Bench to ignore substantial criticism and comments from both sides of the House because the Government have enjoyed a handsome majority. Not every point that is raised in the House is party political, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will make a more determined effort than some of his predecessors to draw to the attention of individual Ministers remarks made from all corners. On many occasions I have raised matters in the House and it has subsequently become quite clear that my remarks have not been drawn to the attention of Ministers, as they should have been. Ministers should have a keener interest in what is said on the Floor of the House than has sometimes been the case. The fact that the Government will have to work harder to obtain a majority will, I hope, help to concentrate the mind. A number of Ministers have enjoyed the luxury of not having to take into account criticisms made, not merely by Conservative Members, but by Opposition Members.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will avoid the temptation to reshuffle Ministers constantly. One of the more debilitating consequences of the length of office of his predecessor was the expectation of an annual reshuffle of Ministers. Comparatively early in the parliamentary year, newspapers, often short of news, began to speculate on who would be involved in musical chairs at the end of term and who would lose their position. That had the effect of undermining the work of individual Ministers whose names appeared in the newspapers. It is suggested that the then Prime Minister herself, through her press secretary, was one of those responsible for hinting that various Ministers might not survive the summer term.

I strongly support the new Cabinet appointed by my right hon. Friend. A number of Ministries would benefit if their Secretaries of State were in office for the full term of this Parliament. There is no great advantage in constantly chopping and changing. The Department of Trade and Industry has seldom had the same Minister in charge for 18 months; often it has been less than a year. Some spheres of policy require prolonged commitment from individual heads—for example, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport, where no advantage is to be gained from endless games of musical chairs.

I hope that, under the paragraph Other measures will be laid before you", the Lord Chancellor will soon bring forward legislation to reduce the maximum age at which judges can retire. I have raised that matter in the House on a number of occasions, but it has not been referred to the Lord Chancellor. When I corresponded with him, it became obvious that he was unaware of remarks that had been made in the House.

The Lord Chancellor has published a paper about lowering the retirement age of judges on which he is seeking consultation. The sooner that he is able to bring the consultation process to a conclusion, and the sooner legislation is laid before Parliament to reduce the retirement age from 75 years to the 70 years that the Lord Chancellor now proposes, the better. I hope that, on reflection, the Lord Chancellor will favour the age of 68.

I also hope that the legislation will explicitly refer to existing judges who may be promoted so that the new retirement age will affect them after their promotion. The great judge Lord Denning, although appointed a judge before the Judicial Pensions Act 1959, was promoted to Master of the Rolls after it but did not have to surrender the requirement to retire at the age of 75. Some of the mischief that occurred because he continued in office beyond that age would have been avoided if, on his promotion to Master of the Rolls, he had been bound by the 1959 legislation.

There are various matters that I have raised several times in the House to which I want the Government to pay closer attention than they have so far been willing to do. There is a need to establish an international court of first instance criminal jurisdiction to deal with cases such as the Lockerbie incident, IRA trials in this country, and the difficulties about extradition. The international dimension of crime which involves drugs, terrorism and kidnapping shows the need for such a court.

An enormous amount of work has been carried out on the subject throughout the world, and although the Government of our country may not be very enthusiastic about it, they will be aware that the Governments of many other countries are. Recently, Germany, Israel, Venezuela and Zimbabwe have expressed support for such an idea. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be aware of support for the proposal in Italy, India and elsewhere. I was delighted that the matter was recently raised in the Canadian Parliament.

If we cannot have a world court, we should at least have a Community court within the EC so that crimes that cross borders within the Community can be tried at a court that covers all Community countries rather than having to be dealt with through the unsatisfactory extradition process, with all the accompanying problems such as the admissibility of evidence. That idea has been pursued in the United Nations and should be taken more seriously in this country.

The single most important issue facing the world is the future of the talks on the general agreement on tariffs and trade. In the past, those matters have been debated in the House by being parcelled up into agriculture, and the textile, shoe and various other industries that are affected by the GATT talks. The House needs the opportunity to reaffirm its belief in and commitment to free trade, as well as giving support to the Government in the negotiations and making clear to the other Governments involved in the GATT talks the importance of a successful conclusion to the negotiations, not just for this country, but for all our trading partners and the world generally.

During the negotiations that led up to Maastricht, my right hon. Friends were fond of saying that other Community countries must realise the importance of this House, and the fact that the Government would have to be able to carry through the House anything agreed at Maastricht. Precisely the same approach should be adopted to the GATT negotiations so that other countries are aware of the profound and long-held commitment of this country to free trade, and to opening up opportunities for trade and the growth that goes with it, for rich and poor countries alike.

I welcome the commitment to strong defence. In the past few years, the world has become not safer, but more dangerous. Within our own continent we already face difficulties that I know will become worse. The eastern part of our continent is likely to go through a period of high inflation and rising social tensions. That phenomenon will not be isolated to the eastern part of the continent, and is bound to have an impact on those of us who live in the more prosperous western part.

Therefore, we must be cautious about running down our defences. Of course, there will have to be changes and adjustments, modernisation and a rethink about the process of British defence policy in future. That is one reason why it is so necessary for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to spend a long period in office. It would be wrong to imagine that it will be plain sailing for us in this continent; we know how other problems affect other continents, not least the difficulties of famine and AIDS raging through Africa, all of which will have consequences for us.

I raise again in the House a matter about which I have spoken before—dyslexia. I was absolutely overjoyed when, in last autumn's Queen's Speech, my then right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, Mr. Peter Walker, spoke of dyslexia. Fortunately, within education, we are becoming much more aware of the number of children with dyslexia. However, I wish to focus on the fact that dyslexia is not confined to those at school. Many children leave school without being diagnosed as dyslexic whose condition may not be diagnosed until years later and for whom there are no training facilities to enable them to overcome that disability.

I am aware that I am making a special plea for people with a condition in which I happen to be particularly interested; many other handicapped conditions require a similar commitment. I make the plea for those with dyslexia because I have been the only person to raise in Parliament the question of post-education training for people who suffer from dyslexia, for whom there are no schemes at present. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to emphasise the importance of overcoming disabilities of this sort by means of the training programmes that are sponsored in this country.

We must also persist with ensuring that the guarantee of high quality training given to 16 and 17-year-olds is fulfilled. My right hon. and learned Friend the former Secretary of State for Employment—now Secretary of State for the Environment—was fond of outlining how bankable this guarantee was, but I am not convinced that it always was. The new Secretary of State will have to be careful to ensure that the Government's promises are fulfilled at ground level, where all sorts of difficulties may make it difficult to carry out these training programmes —changes of staff, difficulties in finding replacement staff, and so on. I certainly know of a number of constituents of mine who found the Government's so-called guarantee a disappointment, and that cannot be allowed to continue.

I hope that the policies initiated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry during his 16 months at the Department of the Environment will be allowed to continue. I hope especially that the east Thames corridor remains the focus of planning decisions in the south-east and that there will be no return to the M4/M3 corridors dominating everything.

I also hope that the channel tunnel rail link into King's Cross never proceeds. I cannot begin to understand why traffic from the regions, from the north-west, from Scotland, the west midlands and Yorkshire, should come into London. It would seem much more sensible for the railway to bypass London, connecting all the main routes from the regions. That is likely to be considerably cheaper to construct than an urban, probably underground, high-speed railway line through London. I do not imagine for a moment that people travelling from Manchester to Paris on a high-speed rail link will really want to go into London first.

Why not build a dedicated line, as the French are doing, which goes from Rugby, through which every single train from the west midlands, the north-west and the west coast of Scotland must pass, to Peterborough, through which every train from Yorkshire, from the north-east and from Edinburgh must pass; thence down to Stansted airport where—the French have done this, too—rail, air and road transport can be integrated? From there the line could go straight down to the channel tunnel itself. The cost of constructing such a line is likely to be much less per mile than a line into east London.

I welcome the Government's commitment to the rent-to-mortgages scheme, which is likely to benefit many thousands of my constituents. They will welcome the chance of benefiting from it as soon as possible.

I hope that the Government will ensure much more publicity for these opportunities than they frequently have done in the past. I remember the undertaking that all local authorities, for instance, would distribute the tenants charter. Two district councils cover my constituency, one of them a safe Labour authority and the other a safe Conservative authority: neither has distributed the tenants charter, even though it is becoming more and more important. I know from my surgeries, home visits and all the other constituency work that I do that law-abiding tenants face increasing difficulties with problem neighbours. Again and again I find that the peace and quiet of perfectly honest people who may have lived in their homes for a long time are being disturbed, sometimes seriously, because new unneighbourly neighbours have moved in next door or close by. The tenants charter has a number of important things to say—of reassurance and of authority —to those whose peace is being thus disrupted.

The reports of the Audit Commission too rarely emerge into the public domain. They are sent to local authorities, but unfortunately all too often local authorities bottle up the matters internally so that they never come out in the open. I should like all Audit Commission reports relating to local authorities to be sent to the relevant Members of Parliament. They should also go to the press. Moreover, I should like a new institution of this House to be set up. We should form a sub-committee of the Public Accounts Committee, which is our most important and prestigious Select Committee. The sub-committee should look into the Audit Commission's report. With at least 50 per cent.—some would say 75 per cent.—of local authority finance coming from the general taxpayer, not from the chargepayer, taxpayers' money is being spent on a huge scale by local authorities, and this House, as the guardian of the nation's taxes, has a legitimate interest in seeing that what local authorities spend of taxpayers' money receives much more public attention. One of the best ways of achieving this would be to give the PAC a large remit, perhaps by way of a sub-committee, which would enable this sort of work to be done as professionally as the PAC does its other work.

I am sure that it is true to say that I represent more people whom the social scientists would describe as belonging to social group E than any other Conservative Member of Parliament. In more colloquial language, I represent large numbers of people at the bottom of the pile. One of the reasons why I am here, greatly to the surprise of my opponents, is that more people of that sort of background voted for me than my opponents believed possible. I must confess, however, that some of the problems associated with these people are too easily overlooked by Ministers and by the Treasury. All Government policies should be analysed and assessed in terms of their impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged people.

Recently we have read and learnt about the riots in Los Angeles. I have read Sunday's newspapers and the newspapers since then with much interest. The Sunday Times leading article and Lord Rees-Mogg's article in The Independent on Monday were both extremely interesting. Both referred to the racial cauldron which has appeared in so many American cities and which has created an underclass of disadvantaged people. I do not represent many who could be described as having an ethnic background, but I do represent a large number of disadvantaged people. In 1980, about 25 per cent. of children born in the largest town in my constituency were born, to use old-fashioned language, outside wedlock. Today the figure is more than 40 per cent. In some primary schools in my constituency, at least 60 per cent. of children come from broken homes where there is no father. Many Opposition Members will have similar experiences. Inevitably, there is acute instability.

The leading article in The Sunday Times of 3 May makes the point with force, but within the context of the American racial situation. I again underline that what I have to face and deal with in Corby every day has nothing to do with race but has everything to do with people who are at the bottom of the pile and who totally depend upon the state for their income and for all the facilities that make life at all possible for them. The leading article refers to a report by an American professor in a seminal work published a decade ago about the black American family. Perhaps hon. Members will bear with me and eliminate from the words that I am about to read any reference to race and treat them as being about people who are at the bottom of the pile. The words still ring true. The article states: And finally these people are destroyed by welfare which produced a culture of dependency among single parent mothers, encouraged them to have children they could not cope with, and allowed fathers to escape their obligations." His conclusion was thatthe cycle of welfare dependency of single parent mothers on welfare raising children who grew up to produce their own single parent families on welfare was the final nail in the coffin of the black family. These are all controversial matters, and the last thing that I would wish is to be considered in any way critical of young ladies in these circumstances. I have to deal with many families in which there is no male figure because the men have comprehensively and absolutely walked away from their responsibilities.

I wish to see a society in which it is possible for people to break out of the trap of poverty. Traps are imposed by the welfare benefits system and by low levels of education and, therefore, there are few job opportunities and virtually no possibility of being able to earn sufficient income to enable people to escape the poverty trap. The Government must address that. As The Sunday Times suggested, they must look at the welfare system that is being established in the state of New Jersey to see whether any lessons which will help towards greater social mobility away from the trap at the bottom of the system can be learnt.

Above all, the Government will have to spend more to develop much better education facilities at the bottom of the pile. In that context, my analysis parts company with that of many Opposition Members. More of the same in our education system is not the answer. The comprehensive system which was established in the 1960s has had 30 years to work but does not offer the way out that it should. However, the opportunities provided in city technology colleges and other such places are highly relevant to the most disadvantaged in our society.

It will be necessary to invest heavily in new institutions of education, not in Surrey or in prosperous Hertfordshire, or in the constituencies of the great majority of my hon. and right hon. Friends, but in the towns and cities that need investment in education and in its new opportunities. That is bitterly opposed by many Labour authorities and Labour supporters. They are profoundly wrong. My experience shows that the way to better education is to put abnormal and special facilities in the areas of greatest disadvantage. If that is done, it will offer a ladder out of the trap which presently imprisons far too many of our fellow countrymen. The future for those at the bottom of the pile is not in the extreme shades of colour that some might suggest.

Too many people have no confidence whatever not only in the Government but in local government. My Labour opponent in the general election was good enough to say in our local newspaper that the ruling Labour group on the district council had become complacent and did not realise the extent to which Labour voters had become thoroughly fed up and disenchanted with the low quality public services being provided by that authority. Those were the words of my Labour opponent who expected to win the contest. There is much greater disillusionment with the whole process of government, local and national, than many people are prepared to concede. Such matters will have to be addressed at grass roots level, rather than by imposing a centralised structure, which has not worked and which does not offer the opportunity for advancement.

I am here because many people who have nothing in this world voted for me. They did so because by voting for me they thought that they were more likely to get a way out of nothing than by voting for my opponents. That may be difficult for some people to come to terms with, but it is true. The opportunities provided by a Conservative Government are much greater than those that would have been provided by any other Government.

I welcome the Gracious Speech and look forward to a successful Parliament.